Stone Chipped Bifaces

All the chipped stone bifaces

Recycling and Reuse 2,000 Years Ago at Ya asqalu’i, Prince Rupert Harbour

The picture above has ALL the bifacially flaked stone artifacts from GbTo-13 and GbTo-54; remarkably few for an assemblage with 4,500 artifacts in total.  Of these, the top left one would normally be considered a unifacial  scraper but it has a finely bifacially flaked end.  Normally in BC assemblages, the arrow, dart, and spear points and knives that are ‘bifaces’ make up a sizable portion of artifacts found during excavations.  In Prince Rupert Harbour, they are rare, as archaeologists since the 1930s including Philip Drucker, George MacDonald/Richard Inglis/Ken Ames, and Gary Coupland have all found before us. While the Tsimshian did a lot of stone flaking, it was almost all ‘rough’ work making what archaeologists call ‘expedient’ tools, or sharp simple flakes, struck from round cobbles, that were meant to be used for just a short while and then thrown away.  These were the equivalent of our  ‘snap-edge’ utility knives.  The Tsimshian simply didn’t make chipped stone projectile points or knives; there were ground stone, bone, shell or wood equivalents that were made instead. Making these beautiful bifaces produces lots of characteristic flakes known as ‘biface reduction flakes’. Usually, you would find dozens for each biface found and 10% or more of all stone flakes might be these ‘biface reduction flakes”.  We found none.  So, the question then becomes “how did these artifacts come into the site if they weren’t being made here?”.

Heavily water-rolled projectile point.
Ancient flaking scars are so worn as to be nearly invisible.

Several of these artifacts are noticeably water-rolled; the ridges on the faces are rounded and smoothed compared to a freshly-flaked artifact.  Yet these were found well away from the water where they couldn’t really have been water rolled on either the beach or the tiny stream at the south end of the site.  We started wondering if there was some massive disturbance that we hadn’t been aware of in the ‘intact’ parts of the site.  Then we found the biface that was catalogued as GbTo-54:1916.  At first we thought someone had found a naturally-shaped pebble that just needed a little edge trimming to make it a functional projectile point.  But when we looked really carefully, we could see that under a really thick layer of ‘patination’ (or age-crust weathering), there were traces of really ancient cultural flaking.  Someone 2,000 years ago had found this ancient point, probably on a beach, and brought it back to the site.  They had just needed to take a few flakes off the edge to completely refurbish it and make it serviceable again.  It may have been thousands of years old at the time they found it.

The finding and reuse of flaked stone tools is talked about a little in the ethnographic literature for northwestern North America.  James Teit in the southern Interior wrote of the Secwepemc (1909:519)  for example:

“Large roughly chipped arrow-stones were found scattered over the surface in many places. These were called ‘thunder arrow-heads’, because supposed to have been fired by the Thunder. They were broken up and formed into small arrow-heads.”

Since reading this passage in Teit many years ago, I’ve tried to consider the ramifications of such recycling and reuse on the archaeological record.  It can really mess up archaeologists trying to date layers by the projectile point styles!! I noted that at a couple of cave sites in Washington State, the oldest layers had just one single style of point; later ones had mostly later style ones, but a few early styles; and the mixing got progressively worse through time, although there was always a preponderance of the ‘right’ aged projectile points.  There were some small pits that were dug in these sites by their inhabitants: that could explain some of the mixing, but I think that a lot of it was the result of people finding and bringing back older points to their camp for raw material.  I’ve also thought that this practice might explain some of the very ancient-looking point types in relatively recent (say, “only” 3,000 years old) radiocarbon-dated wooden shafts found in the Yukon Ice Patches by Greg Hare, Ruth Goddard, et al.  The very latest American Antiquity journal (October 2014) has an article dedicated to this phenomenon by Thomas Whyte “Gifts of the ancestors: secondary lithic recycling in Appalachian Summit prehistory”.  He considers the effect of ancient recycling on archaeological data, and happily he comes to many of the same conclusions as I did.  Many of the artifacts he illustrates have fresh flaking on weathered surfaces like the one above.  In once case, he identifies a biface that was lost, lay for centuries, was found and reworked not just once, but twice!

The modern mantra of ‘reduce, recycle, reuse’ has ancient counterparts!